For months, against the backdrop of the media focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the potential Western response, another story about the Islamic Republic’s ambitions has been gaining ground: that story is about the Iranian government’s attempt to create its own “halal” internet, cut off from the outside world.
Iran’s intent, it would seem, is to create an internet where Iranians are “safe” from the pornography, hate speech and cultural influence that the World Wide Web provides, whilst still allowing for intra-national communications, shopping and business to prevail. Recent reports that the government had blocked access to Gmail and Google Search – possibly in protest of the company’s decision to refuse to censor the anti-Muslim video that made waves in the US or possibly just yet another move in a series of restrictions – further confirmed the regime’s intent.
But nearly as quickly as Gmail was blocked, reported the AP, the government faced a backlash from citizens who, after years of access to the popular e-mail product, were angry that they could no longer access their communications. And as Reuters reported, some of the complaints came from Iranian Parliamentarians. In what may seem like a surprising move, Iran responded by unblocking the service.
The move may not surprise more attentive observers, however; though it is uncommon for a government to back down on censorship, there is precedent: In 2010, when Tunisia’s government blocked Facebook, they were quickly forced into submission by street protests. And earlier this year, the Palestinian Authority was shamed into reversing a ban on a handful of opposition sites.
This phenomenon has been explained by Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of Internet Censorship which, in part, posits that when the tools of our everyday lives become collateral damage in governmental efforts to block speech, citizens take notice. The theory can also explain why Americans and Europeans were riled up over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), why Pakistanis started a mass protest against the blocking of Blogspot back in 2007, and why, today, Iranians – by and large a conservative populace – are up in arms over their country’s latest censorship efforts.
Can a ‘halal’ internet work?
Technically, it would be rather difficult for Iran to fully cut itself off without immediately crashing its own economy. And even if the government managed to deny access to citizens, certain sectors – banking, international business – would still surely retain access.
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Still, it’s unclear whether the plan can succeed. As described by Ars Technica, the government intends to implement an “insular nationwide intranet” isolated from the global internet and heavily regulated by the government. If successful, Iran will have accomplished something few other nations could: full control over its citizens’ modern communications.
Though access rates vary widely from country to country, few countries restrict their entire populace from the internet. Cuba, which has nonetheless begun to loosen its own restrictions in recent years, is one example, while North Korea appears to deny access to all but small selection of high-ranking citizens.
China – certainly the most restrictive high-access country, with more than 500 million users – has succeeded in cutting out most of the world’s internet in large part because it has allowed the creation of heavily censored local copycats of popular sites such as Twitter and YouTube, thus quelling much of the need for the “originals” (and yet, there are still a reported 63.5 million Chinese Facebook users). As an interpretation of the theory might go, if a population can access their cute cats, protested for more will be muted.
But Iran is not China. Not only is the country’s tech sector far less sophisticated – as Ars Technica has also reported, the “halal” internet would be reliant about Chinese tech firms like Huawei and ZTE – but, Iranians have developed a taste for the global internet. Despite an official ban on the site, Facebook is widely used (through the use of proxies and VPNs, which a reported half of Iran’s population uses) and Twitter is increasing in popularity. Any attempt to block the social networks Iranians have become accustomed to would surely result in an uproar.
So what is a government to do? Iran may express a desire to “cleanse” the internet of obscene content, but based on its track record, obscenity is just a mask to cover the government’s real desire: to stifle dissent and prevent international communication. And while a majority of citizens may not take issue with the censorship of lascivious content, the latter concepts should be treated as non-negotiable human rights.
Keyword filtering system
If Iran were to insist on censoring obscenity, it could take different measures – like those employed by Saudi Arabia, which installed a sophisticated keyword filtering system. Though the kingdom’s restrictions are severe and infringe on freedom of expression, its filtering system is at least more transparent than Iran’s.
Or better yet, it would offer free home-filtering software free of charge to every family, as Jordan’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology recently did. Instead, the government seeks to tear its citizens away not only from the global internet, but from communicating with their families and friends abroad. Such a move will be damaging not only to citizens, but to the country’s economy, unsustainable without global connectivity. Those with doubts need only look to Egypt: When that country cut off access to the internet in January 2011, the economy lost an estimated $18 million each day.
Iran is not, of course, the only country cracking down on the internet. From West to East, dozens of nations have found some reason or another to implement new restrictions. In the United States and Europe, it’s copyright. In India, the world’s largest democracy, the impetus is religious insults. Across Southeast Asia, the justifications vary, but, as in most of the world, the underlying reasoning appears to have more to do with controlling a nation’s populace than with excuses given on the surface.
Will Iran succeed in sequestering itself from the online world? For a time, perhaps. But as most authoritarian leaders eventually learn, there are red lines – some which may not seem so apparent at first – that the population won’t let them cross. For Iranians, access to the internet may be that line.
Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork